Suspicious minds

A funny thing happened this week.

I volunteer at a charity shop raising funds for abandoned and abused animals. Mostly I am in the book department, where we have a vast quantity of both hardback and paperback books donated by well-wishers and which are sold for 1 euro each.


The ‘shop’ isn’t exactly a shop in the conventional sense. It’s a collection of barns and outbuildings selling quality bric-a-brac, furniture, linens, clothing, children’s games and toys, electrical goods, DVDs, CDs and the aforesaid books. There is also a tea shop where shoppers can spoil themselves with the very best of home-baked cakes and pastries.

Anyway, a lady came in on Tuesday and selected a number of books, and when she came to pay I noticed that a couple of them were written by me.

I said to her, “Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy these – I’m the author.”

She stared at me and said, “What?”

“I wrote these two books.” I tapped the covers. She looked at the books and then back at me, and didn’t seem convinced.

She turned her attention to my apparel, which was suited to mid-February in rural France. Fleecy trousers and tops, scarf, boots and woolly gloves all topped off with a red nose.

“Then what are you doing working here,” she asked. “I thought writers were rich.” 😀

Contrast that with what happened many years ago in the Brighton branch of the greatly missed and much-lamented Borders Bookshop, where you could sit and read for as long as you wished on a comfy sofa, and drink coffee and eat cakes, when one of my titles was newly-released and piled up on a table at the front of the shop. The friend I was with walked up to the person behind the counter and said: “This lady is the author of that book – she’ll sign some copies if you like.”

So the man came from behind the counter, found me a chair, and not only did I sign every copy, he found other titles of mine on the shelves and asked me to sign those too.

Without asking for any proof that I was the author!

Looking back I suspect he must have been relatively new or very confident that the books would sell, because bookshops cannot return unsold books to the publisher once they’ve been signed. My agent, the lovely Maggie Noach had told me that. Luckily for that man the title sold well and I don’t recall that there were ever any returns.

Here’s the King, never been equalled.

Sometimes a Great Sentence

There are times when I read a phrase or sentence and think “I wish I had written something as inspired as that.”

Today was one of those moments.

This is NOT in any way politically motivated on my part, but simply a tribute to sublime penmanship.

A friend sent me a link to Harper’s Weekly Review, where among many other pithy comments by Sharon J Riley, the following perfectly crafted gem appears:

“I won the popular vote,” said the president-elect, who did not win the popular vote.

Chapeau, Sharon. 🙂

The People’s Book Prize – as it happened

I planned to write this as soon as I returned home from London, but what ever goes to plan here? 🙂 Instead I worked my way through the 127 emails and dozens of Facebook comments that had accumulated in the one and a half days I was without Internet access.

And by the time I’d done that and sorted out the washing etc. etc. etc. and had a busy week, it had slipped from top of the list to way, way down. But now it’s a peaceful Sunday morning and TOH is out for the day, so here goes.

Firstly all the panic about possible flight delays or cancellations proved to be a waste of time and panic. Everything ran on time, and I reached my accommodation at 9.00 pm on a warm dry summer evening.

Next day started off with blinding sunshine, which by 11.00 am had given way to lashing rain, which persisted throughout the afternoon.

Dressed in my finery and sandals, and wielding an umbrella, I travelled with Stephanie to the venue at Stationer’s Hall. We were only slightly soggy when we met up with the rest of the Blackbird Digital Books contingent – intern Rosalie Love and authors Tanya Bullock (gosh, she is so tall and slim, gorgeous) and Diane Chandler with her husband Nick, and made our way into the splendour of Stationer’s Hall.

Organiser Tatiana put all the finalists through their paces in a dress rehearsal of where we should be, when and how, and once we had all been photographed we moved on for drinkypoos and had the pleasure of meeting and chatting for several minutes to Frederick Forsyth.

Dinner was served. The starter was a pretty pastel green pea mousse, decorated with a Parmesan wafer. Yummy. Main course was cod for the carnivores, but most people on our table were served the vegetarian option, a tasty pastry filled with spinach and mushrooms and served with crushed potatoes, followed by an excellent deconstructed lemon meringue pie.

Then we got down to business, beginning with the Beryl Bainbridge award for the best first time author. This went to Quentin Letts for ‘The Speaker’s Wife’

Best Publisher award was taken by Percy Publishing.

Then it was time for the non-fiction finalists to mount the platform (amidst much giggling). The prize went to Rachel McGrath with her book ‘Finding the Rainbow,’ her account of her struggle to conceive. Winners took seats at the back of the platform, while the rest of us negotiated the steps back down to floor level and took our seats with a sigh of relief at not having to make a speech. 🙂

The prize for the Children’s Book went to lovely smiley Ellie Stoneley’s Milky Moments.

I can’t remember Frederick Forsyth’s speech word for word as he prepared to announce the winner of the Fiction prize, but it was something in the order of ‘now let’s move on to the winner of the BIG prize, Fiction. An interesting one, because I was talking to her earlier over there’ – he nodded his head towards the room where we had drinkypoos.  And that’s when I knew who the winner was. Incidentally, willowy Tanya, who was also a finalist in the fiction category with her beautiful book That Special Someone, is so tall that she could read the name of the winner over his shoulder. 😀

The People’s Book Prize for fiction went to Diane Chandler for ‘The Road to Donetsk’. YAY!!! Bravo Diane, I am so thrilled and delighted for you.

And bravo Blackbird Digital Books. For a small publisher to not only have three titles in the finals but to scoop the BIG prize too, that is special. Stephanie works unbelievably hard to promote her authors, and has built up a stable of the nicest and most  talented writers you could hope to find.

Dr Sarah Myhill picked up the final award for Best Achievement with her book ‘Sustainable Medicine’.

Winners 2015 (1).jpg

Winners of The People’s Book Prizes, 2016

To the people who stayed up for several hours waiting to see the ‘live broadcast by Sky News,’ although they were indeed filming the event, Theresa May’s accession to the Tory Throne took priority. It was rescheduled for showing on Friday, but was overshadowed by events in Turkey.

There was only one way to wrap up the evening, so we retired to a local hostelry and celebrated Diane’s win with a large bottle of MoĂ«t, courtesy of Diane and Nick. 🙂

As well as meeting Diane, Tanya and Rosalie for the first time, earlier in the day I met up with long-time Facebook mate the very lovely Jacqui Lofthouse, and newest Blackbird author Susie Lynes, whose first novel, Valentina, a psycho-thriller is raking in the 5-star reviews.

To all those people who voted for me, without you I would not have been a finalist and had such a blast, so thank you enormously. 🙂

One swallow ………..

…. does not a summer make.

Neither do fourteen, it seems, as Midsummer day is almost upon us and the weather continues to be cool, damp and grey with frequent heavy downpours and occasional violent storms. This afternoon we are threatened with a hail storm. Given the choice of excessive heat, or excessive rain, I would choose the latter, but it really has been a dismal start to summer, and from the forecast it doesn’t look as if we can expect any improvement for another few days at least.

The garden is luxuriant both in terms of plants and weeds. The rose bushes are bent beneath their own weight, but the blooms are ragged and soggy. The lawn never dries out sufficiently for mowing.


But on the bright side, the swallows are flourishing. The four who arrived in mid-March are now fourteen as far as I can count, all feathered and flying. Hopefully there will be more to come, as they often raise two broods before they migrate in the autumn.

A consequence of all the renovations that have taken place in rural areas is that swallows and owls have lost their ancestral family homes. All the barns and previously deserted houses in our hamlet have been converted into either permanent or holiday homes. It is really heart-breaking to see the swallows, when they arrive, flutter around windows that were once empty gaps, as they try in vain to reach the beams where they had nested for generations.

Although we renovated one tiny old house as a holiday home, several years ago we stopped using it for that purpose and instead use it for storage. I leave the upstairs windows open throughout the year for ventilation, and as soon as the swallows discovered that, they were in like Flynn and building their nests. They also established themselves in the little wooden chalet in the garden. We are able to watch at close quarters as they work through the daylight hours to fill the gaping mouths of their young. The birds are quite used to us being in close proximity.

Hungry swallows

Last year we met a couple who were temporarily without accommodation, and offered them the opportunity to ‘camp out’ in the small house, on the understanding that there would be birds swooping in and out and around the bedroom. They reported that as the young fledged and began practising flying, lying in bed was like being on the platform at Waterloo during rush hour. 😀

There is an obvious consequence of having birds living indoors, but clearing up their mess is a small price to pay for the pleasure of knowing we have given them space to raise their young in safety. Once they were a common sight here, but over the years their numbers have dropped alarmingly. We must help them in every way we can.

As I am writing this I can see a dozen or so swallows swooping around the garden, plus the goldfinches, blackbirds, wagtails and woodpeckers. None of them seem discouraged by the weather, although the swallows look rather soggy.

Soggy swallow-2

While discussing swallows, I thought I would mention for those who don’t know, that my book ‘Swallows and Robins – the Laughs and Tears of a Holiday Home Owner’ is a finalist in The People’s Book Prize 2016. The winner is chosen by public vote, and the award ceremony will be broadcast by Sky News on 12th July at 8.00 pm. If you would like to vote for me, here is the link to click. If you voted for me in the first round, thank you, please do continue to support me by voting again. Finalists are listed in alphabetical order, so you need to scroll down.

PBP Finalist
Click image to go to voting page.

I know that we are not alone in having unseasonable weather, and that while some are suffering floods others are suffering heatwaves. Here’s hoping that for all of us we soon have some relief and can get out of the house without being either drenched or baked. 🙂




Not yet a novelist

It doesn’t happen often, that I am left speechless. Even if it’s only a curse I can usually muster a couple of words.

Being unable to write is a new experience. Never have I stared blankly at a bare sheet of paper for ten minutes and failed to find a single word worth writing.

But on Wednesday  that’s what happened. Unnerving.

I’ve sometimes been called a novelist. The definition of a novel is a story invented by the writer – a tale about imaginary characters and events. In other words, fiction. The person who writes a novel is a novelist.

All my books so far have been non-fiction. They are about actual events, people and places. They are not novels, and I am not a novelist. I’m a writer, or author. However it is increasingly common to hear all writers referred to as novelists. Does it really matter except to the pedants?

But I have meandered away from the point.

Our guest speaker at the May literary luncheon hosted by Charroux Literary Festival was the effervescent Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova novels. After lunch Alison held  a workshop on ‘character and setting.’ The first part of the exercise was to create a character. In ten minutes.

While the 17 other guests bent their heads and wrote diligently, my mind became a vacuum. The minutes ticked by. Alison called: “You have five minutes left!”

I felt a wave of panic. This is how Masterchef contestants must feel as the clock ticks down and their panna cotta hasn’t set. I quickly scribbled down the most clichĂ©d character imaginable, and as quickly scribbled them out. When our ten minutes was over, my character was non-existent. It’s the hardest piece of writing I’ve never done. I could feel sweat trickling down my back, and my throat had dried up.

Things looked up when we went on to the second element of the exercise,  creating a setting. From nowhere came a muse who settled on my shoulder and helped squeeze out a couple of hundred words.

The final part of the exercise was to swap all our characters and settings around anonymously, and create a story from them. Pity the poor person who was landed with my non-character.

I landed on my feet, as the character and setting, although devised by two different people, could have been written for each other, and I regained my writing mojo, for the first time actually writing fiction. And loving it. Something I have never believed I am capable of. That doesn’t mean I’ve become a novelist – 200 words do not a novel make, but I can see a glimmer of light beckoning from the end of a previously unknown tunnel.

Since then I have been creating characters in my head, and without the pressure of the ticking clock have found it addictive and fascinating.

Alison is – forgive the clichĂ© – a prolific author with a huge fan base, and has written five novels in the Roma Nova series in three years. She also blogs energetically and offers advice and help for writers. I bought her book The 500 Word Writing Buddy which contains  no-nonsense, succinct advice delivered with a generous dollop of humour. It has motivated me to hope that one day I will deserve the title of novelist.


First, however, I must finish the current non-fiction book I am working on. 🙂








Festival Notes: an interview with Travel Writer Susie Kelly by the Charroux Litfest team

Apologies for the erratic line-spacing in this post – WordPress is throwing a wobbly and refuses to let me edit. I’ll keep trying, though. 🙂 


Charroux LitFest: Can you tell me a bit about what you are writing at the moment?

Last year we went on a safari to Kenya, and just now I’m writing about that.

As well as visiting game parks all over the country we also had an opportunity to see different aspects of life in Kenya today, from supreme luxury to extreme poverty, and to meet people living and working at both ends of the scale and in between.

I had a set idea in advance of how the book would evolve, but it all changed during our visit and I’m trying to adjust my original concept to take into account those changes that have taken place, and my feelings about them, forty years after I left the country. It’s a digression from my usual style, and something I haven’t completely mastered so far. It’s still a work in progress.

Charroux LitFest: Can you tell me a bit about your writing/working day e.g. place/time/treats/special mementos you have in your writing space?

I’m a slow starter, more of an owl than a lark, and begin my day with coffee while reading emails, checking on Facebook and doing the Guardian quick crossword on-line. Then I deal with paperwork, shopping, cooking – all those chores for which a wife would be really useful, although my husband Terry does a lot to help.

My office is a small room facing onto the garden, where we have set up a bird-feeding table. During the winter I make up large bowls of food for them, melting vegetable fat and adding cooked pasta, sunflower seeds and mixed grains, which go into the fridge to set. These very large pieces allow many small birds to comfortably feed at the same time, without risk of catching their claws in the nylon netting on those small balls you can buy. They have also attracted several great spotted woodpeckers this year, so rather a lot of my time has been spent watching them. While I’m doing so, thoughts, phrases and ideas are running through my mind, so although I’m not physically writing, it’s all going on in my head.

Once I start writing the least interruption can kill my train of thought, so I wait until the dogs have settled down for the night and Terry is reading, and the telephone has stopped ringing. When I get going I’ll carry on for as long as the words flow, so am often still writing at midnight.

Try as I may to keep my working space neat and tidy, it is invariably cluttered with paperwork, photos, empty cups, rubber bands, pens and notebooks, but the one thing that is always there is a Swiss cheese plant on my desk. She is called Ethel and is my confidante, guardian of my secrets and a good listener.


Charroux LitFest: Of all the places you have visited in your books, where do you want to return to most and why?


Kenya, where I grew up and which I wrote about in my memoir, is where in my heart I will always think of as home and where I would choose to live under the right circumstances.

However, I love France, where we have lived for over twenty years. Having travelled around and across it, there are so many places I’d like to go back to, but if I had to choose, it would be one of the first places we visited on our trip in the camping car which I wrote about in Travels with Tinkerbelle, the Pointe du Van in Brittany, on a summer day.


Pointe du Van, Finisterre, Brittany

Although I am not a lover of the sea, there is something about that tip of land that is so majestic and other-wordly. On a perfect day the shades of blue of the sea blend seamlessly into the blue of sky, so you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, and it feels as if you are standing on the very edge of the world. But during the winter, storms can whip that same sea into a terrifying cauldron of towering grey waves. Nature here is at her most unspoilt and invincible.

The Brittany coastline, for me, is the most beautiful natural area of France. I’d like to go back there.

Charroux LitFest: What Novelists /novels have influenced you in your reading life, and why:how?

That’s a hard one! I read so much in several genres by so many writers.

As far as travel writing goes, Bill Bryson has to be my number one favourite. Paul Theroux is up there too. Both of them always make me laugh. Although I enjoy most travel literature, I enjoy it far more when it involves mishaps and nothing goes according to plan. That certainly encourages me when writing about our travels, because they invariably go wrong from day one.

For thrillers, Gerald Seymour is my pick. The lines between good and evil are blurred, with no stereotypical goodies and baddies; each character is a human being with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. His story lines are gripping and from his career as a front line journalist in war zones around the world, he knows exactly what he’s talking about. Something that instantly puts me off a book is when there is a factual error, and it is something I am very conscious of when writing. I check, double-check and check my facts again to try to ensure they are correct. If in doubt, I’d sooner leave something out.

Historical fiction – Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, C J Sansom and newcomer Tony Riches are among my favourites in this genre. History was one of my least favourite subjects at school, it was all dry facts and dates, whereas well-written historical fiction brings it to life. I’ve learned far more about the evolution of Europe than I ever did from lessons at school, and doing so sparked my interest in learning about the history of those places we visit.

My greatest regret is that if I live to be 150, there still won’t be time to read all the books I’d like to. As well as those from the mainstream publishers, there is so much quality writing being published now by small presses and people who choose to self-publish. These are often overlooked, but are worth investigating because there is some really, really great writing to be found, particularly memoirs and biographies of ‘ordinary’ people who have lived extraordinary lives and often prove that fact is indeed stranger than fiction..

For enthusiastic readers who like to explore beyond the book club choices and newspaper reviews, I’d recommend signing up to one of the services like BookBub, which hand pick books in your chosen genres and send you daily emails when they are on special offer – often free, or reduced to 99 cts. It is quick and easy way to discover new writers.

Charroux LitFest: Other than writing, what is your idea of your perfect day here in South West France?

The temperature is exactly 24ÂșC. There are tiny smudges of cloud high up in the blueness of the sky. A warm, gentle breeze tinkles the wind chimes.

We breakfast in the garden, beside the pond, in the shade of the tri-colour maple. The lawn is perfectly mowed, the wisteria in bloom, the scent of roses in the air, and there’s not a weed to be seen. A jug of freshly-squeezed orange juice, a pot of strong coffee, a small jug of cream and a plate of buttery croissants and black cherry jam are laid out on the table. Our dogs lie beside us enjoying the sunshine. There are no flies.

All around the birds are singing, bees burrow into the hearts of the lavender, and I smile knowing somebody is cleaning the house for me.

After breakfast I shower and pamper myself for half an hour, then flick through my extensive wardrobe to choose something to wear. All the clothes are size 10, and they all fit comfortably.

We take the dogs for a long walk through the fields, and then it is almost mid-day, time to meet friends for lunch at our favourite restaurant, Le Bouton d’Or, a fifteen minute stroll from our house. Chef Francis welcomes us with his permanent smile and joke, and serves a superb 4-course meal with a bottle of crisp, light rose wine.

During the afternoon we retire to the garden to read and doze, with the dogs beside us. They take us for another walk before supper, which is served in the garden. We have a simple, light meal – Vichyssoise followed by fresh Gariguette strawberries, and a glass of something fizzy, probably a Vouvray.

We sit in the warm evening until the stars came out, and the nightingales begin to sing. It has been a perfect day.

CLFT: Thank you Susie

The second Charroux Literary Festival will take place from 24 – 26 August 2017 in the historic town of Charroux in south-west France. Author lunches and other  literary events will take place throughout the months leading up to the festival. To find out more like us on  or contact us at